Betting the Moneyline in Baseball
For new bettors, looking at the odds for the long list of baseball games on any given day can be more intimidating than looking at a full slate of Sunday NFL action, particularly if you’re looking at the moneyline. Most people are familiar with the concept of a point spread and deciding whether a certain team is going to win by a certain number of points. When it comes to moneylines – in baseball and all sports — we simply want to pick the winner, no matter the score. That sounds easier than betting against the spread, doesn’t it? It is. So why doesn’t everyone always just bet on the biggest favorites’ moneyline? Because the bigger the favorite, the smaller the payout.
The following chart is a snapshot of National League baseball games with moneyline prices for each game. There is more than one moneyline because there is more than one bookmaker. Just as in football, where spreads range from site to site, MLB moneylines do the same. These deviations matter and we will address that further on. For now, know that the moneyline favorites are listed as a negative number and the underdogs are listed as a positive number.
In the chart above, we see that that New York Mets (NYM) are about -150 favorites over the Giants (SFG), who are at roughly +155. In practice, that -150 number simply means that, in order to win $100, you have to bet $150 on the Mets. If the number is positive, like the one next to the Giants (+155 or so), it represents how much you will win on a $100 bet.
Moneylines and spreads are somewhat related. They both indicate how big a favorite is, and sportsbooks employ them to encourage equal betting on both teams. The interconnection between the moneyline and spread is obvious with NFL games, where you can bet against the spread or on the moneyline. A -150 moneyline roughly equates to a -3 spread, so anytime you see a -3 spread, chances are you can also bet on the favorite to win – regardless of score – at a -150 moneyline, give or take.
Let’s look at a real-life example. If the Pittsburgh Steelers are favored by -3 over the Baltimore Ravens, we can make a bet that Pittsburgh will win the game, regardless of the score, at a moneyline price around -150.
If we bet that Baltimore will win (without the +3 points), we can bet on them at a price of roughly +140. In football, the point spread is the great equalizer. In baseball, where moneyline betting is much more common than spread betting, the payout ratio is how sportsbooks encourage equal betting on both teams. (Many sites will offer spread-betting for baseball as well, but it’s a less common avenue for MLB wagering.)
If you’ve bet on football against the spread, you already know that you don’t actually double your money if you win your bet. Each side of the spread actually has a moneyline attached to it. Going back to our Pittsburgh/Baltimore example, Pittsburgh -3 and Baltimore +3 would both have a -105 or -110 moneyline attached, meaning we have to bet $105 or $110 in order to win $100. It’s the price we all pay to play.
The risk and reward of a baseball moneyline is different than that standard -110 “juice” we are used to dealing with. In practice, it changes how often you have to win in order to break even.
If you only bet on games at -110, you would have to win 52.38% of the time to break even. But, at -150, we need a much higher win-rate. At that price, we need to win 60% to maintain our bankroll. Conversely, betting on Baltimore at +140 only requires a 41.6% win-rate to stay even.
That’s why the most successful bettors aren’t out there blindly betting favorites on the moneyline. You’re expected win rate needs to be much higher in order to make a profit, and as all baseball fans know, upsets happen daily.
Expected Win-Rate Matters
The chart below shows what your expected win-rate needs to be to break even at various prices.
|Price||Expected Win Rate %|
On the surface the differences appear subtle but let’s remember the magic number of 52.38%, which is what it takes to break even betting into the vigorish of -110.
Here is an even more simple way to look at it. If you make twenty bets and win ten, you are a 50% bettor, which is net losing. If you turn one loser into a winner and are 11-9, you are a 55% bettor and, thus, profitable.
However, in baseball, it is entirely possible to win 50% or less and make money. All you have to do is successfully bet on underdogs. (I use the phrase “all you have to do” facetiously; successfully betting dogs is not a walk in the park, but it’s not impossible either.)
Here is a recent example of six games played by the Toronto Blue Jays, complete with the opponent, the price, and the result of each game.
As you can see, Toronto went .500 over that six-game stretch, winning three and losing three. Assuming you made a $100 bet on all six games using the -110 we are familiar with, you would have lost $30. But the actual moneyline wasn’t the standard -110 for any of the games. In reality, betting $100 on the Blue Jays in all six games would have landed us a $95 profit; they were the underdog in five out of six, including all three wins.
Since the biggest risk on any one game would have been $100, our ROI, return on investment, was roughly 15%. That is a difficult ROI to attain/retain betting on expensive favorites, as we will see next.
Below is a recent set of six games the Cubs played. As in the Toronto example, the Cubs won three and lost three.
As you can see, it was very expensive to bet on Chicago against the Phillies, a team that’s considered weak. Over the course of the three games, you had to bet an average of $190 on each game in order to win $100. Yes, the Cubs won all three, but the return on investment wasn’t great.
The Cubs then lost their next three to the Yankees, despite being favored in each one. So, all in all, they went exactly .500 over the course of those six games, just like the Blue Jays.
However, betting $100 on all six Cub games would have lost us $75.
Let’s look at the specifics. The average price of the Cubs over the six games was -157, which would mean we would have to win 61% at that price just to break even. To translate that into even more simple terms, a baseball team that wins 100 games over the course of the season wins 61% of their games. There are some seasons that no team wins 100 games.
Getting the Best Number
Since we have seen how much these numbers matter, it is time to take it one step further. Let’s assume we have decided which team we are going to bet on. Now, we have to get the best price. The price is a commodity. When you need to fill your car with gasoline, you looking for the cheapest gas station. Betting should be no different.
There are literally hundreds of bookmakers to shop at. Some bettors have accounts at almost all of them, and we would suggest having multiple accounts (but only on trustworthy sites). As we saw at the beginning of this article, not all bookmakers are created equal. MLB moneylines vary from site to site. All else being equal, you should make your bet at the site that will generate the greatest return.
In the NFL the betting markets are much more static, meaning that the numbers generally don’t vary much from hour to hour. You also have a week to figure it out. Baseball is played every day so sportsbooks only have 24 hours to set lines and adjust, and you only have 24 hours to assess and analyze. This creates a more volatile market, so to speak. The chart below shows the 24-hour betting cycle for the moneyline on a Dodgers vs Pirates game (although the opponent doesn’t matter for this example).
As you can see, the Dodgers opened as -183 favorites, which at the time would have made the necessary win-rate 64%. Depending on when you placed your bet, you could have paid as much as -195, which increases necessary win-rate to 66%. That’s a significant difference, even though it doesn’t sound like one. It is identical to paying 12¢ more for a gallon of gasoline. Remember that, at the standard -110 juice, winning 10 of 20 bets (50%) is a losing proposition, while going 11-9 (55%) makes you an overall winner. The smallest shifts in the moneyline matter when margins are this tight.
To put that 12¢ back into football terms, a -195 moneyline favorite translates to a -4 favorite in spread betting (perhaps 4.5 at some shops). A -183 moneyline favorite is likely going to be a 3.5-point favorite against the spread. So that 12¢ shift could equate to one full point in an NFL game. Most bettors will agonize over that point, and well they should.
NFL bettors don’t make the mistake of taking the worse number in a football game because they know the consequences. There is no reason to treat a baseball moneyline any differently. Shop around and get the best number you can. It matters in the long run.